Interview | Jemaine Clement on ‘The BFG,’ Roald Dahl and Stupid Giants
Audiences know Jemaine Clement as half of Flight of the Conchords, a musical comedy act that produced a cult hit television series for HBO. But they also know him as several lords of darkness. The comedian has played unnatural monsters in films ranging from Men in Black 3 to What We Do in the Shadows, and now he’s accepted his biggest villain role to date – literally – in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.
Jemaine Clement plays a child-eating giant named Fleshlumpeater in The BFG, which also stars Mark Rylance as a “Big Friendly Giant” who befriends a little girl named Sophie, played by young Ruby Barnhill. It’s a fairy tale for precocious children, featuring thuggish, stupid villains who fit author Roald Dahl’s perception of evil, and despite his thoughtful demeanor on the telephone, he plays that despicable oafishness very well in the film, in part through the art of motion capture.
I talked to Jemaine Clement earlier this week – over a slightly bad connection – about playing a villain without wits, about his personal history with the stories of Roald Dahl, and about why he thinks performing through motion capture might just be superior to performing in live-action. Enjoy.
Crave: Roald Dahl’s villains have a tendency to be just particularly nasty, and sometimes very oafish people. What does that do for you as an actor, and what does that give you with Fleshlumpeater?
Jemaine Clement: Well, fun with these things. His villains are, maybe with the exception of The Witches, they’re often very stupid. So stupid is a great thing to play for comedy because, sometimes, you can say ideas that are interesting, more interesting than if they were logical. But in this case these giants are just very stupid, but dangerous. Also they’re physically large and they eat children, but it makes them dangerous because they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t understand. They don’t care.
What were your conversations with Steven Spielberg about a character like that? What was his concern about the giants and how they were played?
I think we ended going a little more scary than funny, in the end. Some of the jokes we had ended up disappearing in favor of the scarier moments. The giants in the book, they openly talk about eating children and the flavors of what different children from different countries were like. And now unfortunately that’s missing from the film. It’s pretty horrible how casual they are about it, but fun for children to listen to! You know, really fun. I remember when we heard it in my class, they mentioned eating kids in New Zealand. They were talking about kids from Turkey taste like turkey, and kids from Wellington, New Zealand taste like beef. That just delighted us, in that we might be eaten. I wasn’t in Wellington but the idea that people we know, my cousins might be eaten.
So that was fun? You were scared by that as a kid?
So you read The BFG as a child?
Our teacher read it to us as soon as it came out. It was a big deal.
Were you an avid Roald Dahl reader?
Yeah, yeah, we read The Witches, The Twits, and I’ve read a few others. The Magic Finger, and a lot of his short stories. I read his short stories when I was a little older.
What do you think the ongoing appeal is, of Roald Dahl? Why do you think he continues to connect so strongly?
Stories like The BFG and The Twits, they have a darkness which a lot of people, they avoid. That’s really fun for children, hearing that darkness. They get it. I mean hopefully you don’t get very much of that experience in real life. Oh, Dirty Beasts ended up being a great one as well, and Revolting Rhymes. They were two books of short stories, and really fun. And there’s other stories that are very warm. Danny, the Champion of the World, which was quite a subtle and heartwarming story, as I remember it.
Obviously your part was motion-capture. Did you get to perform your scenes with Mark Rylance, or was it separate, with “movie magic?”
No, we’d do it together. Yeah, we were with all the other actors, all the time.
What was that experience like? Was it freeing or was it extremely technical for you?
No, it’s not technical at all for us. We don’t have to think about it. It’s less technical even than filming live-action, because you don’t have to be concerned about the camera anymore, because everything you do is recorded [and] so you can do whatever you like. You know, so you might be limited by a camera and where you can go and what you can do [in live-action], but here there the camera is put in virtually later. So you know, you can just move anywhere. It’s very natural.
It’s like being in a play. You can do longer scenes than if we’re acting in a house, and if we’re acting in one room and we go into the next room… in a typical situation, live-action, you’d have to stop shooting, you’d have to set up the cameras in the next room, set up the lights, you might be waiting half an hour or an hour for the next room. But in this process you just do it all together in one, and you end up doing really long takes, which is great. It’s like being in a play.
Is it better, do you think? Or is there anything that you’re missing from the old film process? Is it always an improvement?
The only thing that I would say I felt like I was missing was that I couldn’t have a say in what the character looks like, because that’s all decided by other people. But then watching it, I was quite [fond] of it, that it didn’t look like me. Because sometimes when you play a character you imagine, or I do, I imagine them looking different from the way I actually look. And then I see it on film and go, “Oh, of course it looks like me. It’s not what I imagined I looked like. It looks like me.” But in this, obviously it’s just a performance, and it doesn’t look like me. I quite liked it in the end, that someone else did the part of… the way the character looks on-screen.
Was there anything particularly particularly surprising about the way he looked, or that you found interesting? Or distracting?
No, I didn’t find it distracting. I was amazed at the detail of the characters. They’re so detailed, every wrinkle and freckle and hair.
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Top Photos: Barry King/Getty Images & Walt Disney
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.